Gerard Jones: On His Return to Writing Comedy

I’m fairly certain the first time I ran across Gerard Jones was when I picked up an issue of his and Will Jacobs-written comic book, The Trouble with Girls, back in the late 1980s. I also was aware of his work for Marvel and DC in the early 1990s. But Jones’ writing really came to my attention in 2002, when he wrote the nonfiction book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence. It was then that I interviewed him (for a long defunct website) about the book. His popularity substantially increased with the 2004 release of the Eisner Award-winning nonfiction work, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Jacobs and Jones, after a 15-year hiatus, recently started collaborating on comedy writing again–and posting their efforts online. Upon reading about one (of three) of their projects “Million Dollar Ideas, our new humor novel set in ’40s Hollywood (sort of)” [as described by Jones], I took the opportunity to email interview him about his return to fiction and humor.

Tim O’Shea: What prompted you to pursue a return to humor writing and collaborating again with Will Jacobs after a 15-year hiatus?

Gerard Jones: Writing humor with Will is the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. We both got a little burnt out on the financial and market stresses of it after our struggles to keep The Trouble with Girls alive didn’t work out, but we both always figured we’d come back to it when the time is right. But then we both had kids, mortgages, a need to be a little more practical with our career decisions. I think we finally got to the point that we felt secure enough with our other endeavors to consider writing something fun by high-risk again, and all we needed was the trigger. That trigger turned out to be Checker Books asking to reprint the first 14 issues of Girls a couple of years ago. The rest of that story is told in an entry on (and my Red Room page).

O’Shea: How does one revise comedy in a collaborative effort, given how subjective comedy is–how do you go about telling your writer partner “sure it’s funny, but I think it needs to be punched up some more”?

Jones: Basically you just say, “Sure it’s funny, but I think it needs to be punched up more.” We both get it. Will and I have been writing together off and on since 1979. I spent the first 22 years of my life not working with Will Jacobs and the next 29 working with him. We’re both very well trained by now not to get huffy.

O’Shea: I love a story that drops names like Brackett and Wilder in the dialogue–are you a fan of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett or quite the opposite? And are there any particular screenwriters that inspired your lead characters? And why on earth include Beaver’s dad, Hugh Beaumont? To be honest, some of the real world character choices you made just cracked me up.

Jones: I love Billy Wilder and Charlie Brackett. And Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond. And Preston Sturges. And Sam Raphaelson. And Joe Mankiewicz. And Jo Swerling. I think the good comedy screenplays of the first 20 years of sound movies were some of the best writing America’s ever produced. I can’t say that any of those guys actually inspired Ed and Johnny [the main characters in Million Dollar Ideas (MDI)], though, given that all of them were successful and had ideas that were right for their times and were willing to rewrite their own dialogue. Who inspired Ed and Johnny? I think the younger Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones did, for sure. Also Scott Fitzgerald’s “Pat Hobby” stories, at least in form and milieu (although the character’s very different). Some of the other Hollywood novels of the time played a role, like the Graham brothers’ “Queer People.” Frank Gruber’s “Fletcher and Cragg” stories, even though those are about encyclopedia salesmen, not screenwriters. My personal ideals for the structure and tone of humor fiction are P. G. Wodehouse and E. F. Benson, although I don’t think you can find any sort of direct inspiration of character or plot there–except maybe that some of Wodehouse’s impetuous young characters, like Bingo Little in “What Ho, Twing!” have some of the forward-rushing enthusiastic idiocy of Ed and Johnny.

O’Shea: Any chance you’d consider running footnotes with some of the jokes? It took me a minute (and an Internet search) to realize when you had Joseph L. Mankiewicz saying “The Klempner novel shows possibilities, but there are just too damned many wives.” That you were referring to the 1949 film “A Letter to Three Wives” which was “adapted by Vera Caspary and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the novel Letter to Five Wives by John Klempner”

Jones: Another reader told me that MDI is the first novel he’s ever read that regularly sent him scurrying to IMDb. I’d consider footnotes except I’d hate to ruin the fun of looking things up. Welcome to fiction in the age of search engines: the reader doesn’t have to understand everything as long as there’s a place to look it up.

O’Shea: That being said, do you think readers can enjoy the comedy without knowing all the subtext and references? I think your style of humor is like pre-9/11 Dennis Miller, you may not get every reference, but you are constantly entertained.

Jones: I’ve always been able to appreciate humor even when I didn’t get all the references, so I assume my readers are equally willing to roll with our esoteric gags. The key is to keep the story clear and the characters understandable, make sure that the obscure gags don’t get in the way of what’s going on. And to keep it all moving quickly enough that something more comprehensible shows up quickly.

I just had a revealing encounter with this phenomenon when my son and his friend–they’re both 15–showed me this series of funny monologues on YouTube called “Unforgivable.” They’re all by a young black comedian doing great riffs on this grotesquely self-conscious would-be “ghetto” guy talking about his experiences with a series of “bitches.” A lot of young references I don’t get, but his delivery is so great I keep laughing. And there’s one gag when he says he went to some bitch’s house and found her watching some sappy movie on TV. “Turn that shit off,” he says. “I brought some DVDs. Dr. Zhivago. Brief Encounter. The Bridge over the River Kwai. A Lean night.”

I cracked up, and so did the 15 year olds. But here’s the thing: I never knew “a lean night” was slang for a night of partying. And there’s no way in hell that Nicky or his friend have ever heard of David Lean or any of those three movies. But I was blown away by this young pseudo-hard-ass making a joke about an English director from the mid-20th century, and they knew that some sort of esoteric, anachronistic gag had been made on a bit of ghetto slang. And that was enough for all three of us to find it funny.

Of course, the viewer who knows both the slang AND the cinephile reference would like it best of all. A young film student, say, which is probably what this guy is. But it didn’t slow any of us down.

O’Shea: Honestly (back to MDI), I love the line “Zanuck’s office wasn’t quite as big as the waiting room in Union Station, but to Ed and Johnny it promised journeys to more and better destinations.” was that a line the two of you wrote together, or is that one you or Will can claim.

Jones: One thing I learned from Billy Wilder: you never, ever reveal what came from you and what came from your collaborator. It’s all about the combined ego. The one exception Billy made was claiming that Diamond came up with “Nobody’s perfect.” But I suspect that may have been a lie to throw us off the scent.

O’Shea: In a story where you have Ed and Johnny pitch an all African-American cast horror film (where instead of Frankenstein, it’s Frankenshine) to Stepin Fetchit/Lincoln Perry, how dicey is it or how hesitant were you to have an African American character point out the ignorance of Ed and Johnny by derisively suggesting instead of Frankenshine, it should be Frankenni**er? Feel free to revise this question if you want to be asked it it in a different way.

Jones: One of the most profound areas of change in this country since the ’40s is race, and it’s one you can’t help running violently up against if you watch movies from that time. Just the other day I was watching this light, cute Spencer Tracy vehicle, I think it was called “I Take This Woman,” all about how an unglamorous, man-of-the-people sort of doctor wins a beautiful model–Hedy Lamarr–away from the no-good rich socialite who’s pursuing her, solid Roosevelt-era Hollywood democracy full of honorable poor people and lovable Italian immigrants and the usual corny but fairly admirable stuff. And then in comes Willie Best, a comedian who first went by the name “Sleep ‘n’ Eat,” playing a janitor named Sambo–the writers actually named him Sambo, these slick, educated, hugely well-paid white writers who probably would have told you they were socially enlightened, very likely politically progressive. And Sambo is of course lazy and stupid and sleepy-eyed and endures the affectionate mockery of all his white betters with gratitude.

You just see this over and over again in Hollywood movies of the time, it’s like a land mine sitting there in the middle of dozens of otherwise well-intentioned, likeable movies. Movies directed by Sturges and Capra and so many people who you think should have known better and didn’t need crude racial humor as a source of gags. Sometimes I think I’ll finally get used to it, but ultimately I’m glad I don’t, because it’s a horrifying thing to think about, all these smart, creative, mostly well-meaning people conspiring to turn a whole race of human beings, of fellow American citizens, into inhuman caricatures. And a lot of those people were immigrants or the sons of immigrants, Jews and Irish and Italians who knew what it was like to be mocked and spat on by other Americans, and there they were eager to do the same to people lower on the totem pole. And although there was no intentional evil in the minds of most of them, maybe any of them, the results were pernicious. Those characters, those jokes, were part of a whole cultural lie that justified black people being kept ignorant and poor and afraid to assert their rights. Then of course there’s the other unsettling wrinkle to it all, the actors like Willie Best and Lincoln Perry who played the roles, who participated in the whole horrifying game to get famous and make a lot of money. Which they did–in his heyday, Lincoln Perry, Stepin Fetchit, had entourages and beautiful girlfriends and servants…a lot of nice cars.

I think to write anything about those movies, to set anything in Hollywood in the ’40s, and avoid dealing with the subject of race, you have to make an effort to pretend it’s not there. Yeah, it’s easy to make up plots that don’t take you there, but it’s always there in the back of your mind. Or my mind and Will’s mind, anyway. It’s the land mine. You can not step on it, but you can’t not think about it. I think ultimately Will and I would have felt like we were cheating if we hadn’t grappled with it. Cheating ourselves at least, if not our readers, if not other people who know those movies and are equally bothered by these things. What Ed and Johnny enabled us to do was show the naivete, the ignorant accepting of Hollywood’s version of things, was part of how the system ran. We can make fun of that naivete, make it ridiculous, satirize it, but also find what’s human about it. We can’t help liking Ed and Johnny even as they’re being such fools, completely failing to see why their Hollywood-shaped views of black people would hurt and offend. And the timing’s fascinating too, because this is post-war Hollywood, when you’ve still got guys like Lincoln Perry still kicking around, still got that kind of comedy surviving, but you’ve also got Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus transforming music, you’ve got a renascent civil rights movement, you’ve got black people making white people newly aware of their anger. So I think it becomes a very funny mix, but it also lets us show how America’s changed, and in some ways how it hasn’t changed. Plus it lets the authors blow off a little tension around all those creepy scenes in the movies–which is, of course, what a lot of humor is about.

O’Shea: How many chapters will MDI eventually be?

Jones: Seventeen. All written. But will they all be posted on line? I hope so, but we are planning to start marketing this for publication at some point, and our future publisher (whoever it may be) may have opinions on revealing the ending for free. We’ll see.

O’Shea: So with My Pal Splendid Man, how on earth did you guys come up with the name Will Jones?

Jones: That’s actually a very carefully crafted reference to two of our literary heroes, George F. Will and James Jones. Why do you ask? Does there seem to be some other significance to it? [Editor’s note: Clearly my assumption of Jacobs and Jones combining their names was mistaken. :)]

O’Shea: Why are you choosing to keep three balls in the air, in essence–releasing new installments every week with three different projects: Million Dollar Ideas, My Pal Splendid Man and Million Dollar Ideas: The Photonovel?

Jones: We finished a draft of My Pal Splendid Man and were letting it sit before sending it out for publication when we jumped into Million Dollar Ideas. So suddenly we had drafts of both books sitting around, neither quite ready to put on the market but both feeling ready to show people and get comments on. Will and I both kept hearing about people who’d generated interest in their books on line, sometimes before they’d even found a publisher, so we decided to take the plunge–not just for marketing purposes but to get comments too. And we’ve already gotten some great input that’s helping us revise both books. We started collecting ’40s pictures originally just to decorate the MDI posts, but at some point we realized we had something like 15 for the first chapter alone, and it seemed better to do a separate post for just the pictures. Hence the “Photonovel.” Then it seemed like a natural just to rotate the three pages, so we could post every week for a while but not burn through the chapters too fast. I like the rhythm of this “Sundays with Will and Gerry.”

O’Shea: After a 15-year break, would you say your respective senses of humor have changed substantially? I would guess it may have given the following line from you talking about the evolution of Splendid Man: “And yet there’s so much else in it that Will and I have learned in the journey from our twenties to our fifties.”

Jones: There’s a lot I could say about this, but the short version is that we’ve really come to appreciate the importance of believable characters and coherent plots even in absurdist humor writing. We never “break the fourth wall” in these stories, we never change or break the rules of our fiction, we plot very carefully, and we make sure the characters are always themselves, always reacting honestly to what’s going on around them. Their realities may be bizarre, especially in My Pal Splendid Man, but we’re very sincere about developing that reality. And in the case of Million Dollar Ideas there’s really one fantastical element to the whole thing–Ed and Johnny’s strangely anachronistic ideas. That book moves almost into the realm of straight fiction as it goes along. Always funny, but always novelistically sound, too. As much as we still love The Trouble with Girls, it was driven by that “whatever’s funny in the moment” philosophy that undermines the suspension of disbelief after a while.

O’Shea: Why do you intentionally avoid breaking the fourth wall, what is the downside of breaking that wall in your work?

Jones: Once you break the wall you can never rebuild it. That’s a pretty basic rule of storytelling. So you don’t do it unless you’re willing to surrender the suspension of disbelief from that point on. As absurd as these stories are, they’re also fiction. We want readers to care about the characters and feel suspense about what’s going to happen to them. Especially Million Dollar Ideas, where we put poor Ed and Johnny through the wringer. We want readers in there with them, not just laughing at our gags.

O’Shea: You seem to really be using the Internet to your advantage in promoting your work. You have one to two blogs, you also have promoted your humor work in Facebook and Red Room. As a fellow who has been done national press tours that has allowed you to appear on NPR and other major national media outlets–do you see a more direct and immediate impact with your recent online promotional efforts (in comparison to your previous mainstream press promo efforts)?

Jones: It’s still an experiment for me. Some people have had great luck building readerships on line. Others have been frustrated. So far it’s going well for me–and it’s certainly a lot of fun.

O’Shea: How hard has it been to find some of the photos used in the photonovel edition?

Jones: I guess it would be pretty hard if I didn’t love that kind of research and love looking at old pictures. The hard part is usually dragging myself back to my writing.

O’Shea: Have you heard from any publishers yet, regarding your current online efforts?

Jones: We’re not ready to open this stuff up to publishers quite yet. Maybe in a few months.

O’Shea: Has pursuing the humor and fiction work helped you step away for awhile and gain a fresh perspective on your nonfiction pursuits?

Jones: It’s a double edged sword. The collaborative humor does give me a refreshing break, but it’s also so much easier than non-fiction that it’s hard not to resent the heavy work when I go back.